How could you be expected to paint a portrait when her face keeps changing? And her face was definitely different since last you saw her. Something about her nose was sharper, and the slant of her eyes was different—it changed the entire landscape of her cheekbones and the contours of her eyelids. She was even different from Re-Incarnate Day, and that was just days ago. Your silent companion agreed.
Yet, she was Henrietta Loraine, Eternal Mother of Nova, and she would get the painting she wanted, even if it killed you. And it very well might, if you didn’t understand what she really wanted from you.
You never thought you’d see the inside of the Eternal’s Palace, but then they had called to ask, no—to tell you that you were painting the new portrait for some dedication of some building. You couldn’t remember. Now you stood beneath the famous stone arches in the Great Hall yourself. Above you stood the statues of the women holding their lights, lanterns on chains, adding just a bit of glow to the sunshine.
Loraine perched on an ornately carved chair, a throne, really, for the modern age. She wore the same decorated uniform, the same medals on a field of green, as her last sitting. The same braid trailed down her shoulder. The light was the same, the chair, the clothes, everything exactly the same as last time.
But her face was different, and it bothered you.
Rufus stood behind her, hand on her throne, not her shoulder. His face was different too, and he was shorter now than before. Now the proportions are off. But you are more than just an artist. You are a magician.
This place, this palace, this capital of the universe, used to be a train station, hundreds and hundreds of years ago. You weren’t supposed to know that, but someone with an Ancient book had told you. You knew a lot of things you weren’t supposed to know. So you babbled. Outside the fountain, the Meeting of the Waters, bubbled and babbled too.
Your knees ached. Good weather did that to you. It wasn’t your hands, or your back, or your ankles, but your knees that gave you the most problems these days, and you are grateful for that. Your hands were too valuable to be wasted on pain.
That always made your little companion laugh—talking about your hands.
“You really think he told the truth?” Rufus asked Loraine quietly, but you still hear him. His voice echoed on the stone around you, and even a whisper was magnified. You kept your eyes on the canvas and dabbed your brush at Rufus’s cheek, that hollow, sunken valley on his face.
“He did,” Loraine responded. “Besides, it’s where we found him last time.”
“So Perseus was in West Six the whole time.”
“Hmm. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The Water Star was a name. It’s obvious.”
You shifted from one foot to the other, trying to keep your knee limber. You’d kept your hands in shape by holding brushes and pencils and pastels, scrawling across canvas and paper and sometimes even brick and stone—how you’d earned a reputation as the mad painter. But your knees crunched when you went up stairs, and they ached when you stood for too long. Like today.
“And now Perseus is gone,” Rufus said.
“Ah, ah, ah!” You said waving your brush at Rufus. “No smiling,” you reprimand the General Eternal like he is a school child. “The light is perfect right now, and I want to catch the soul of it, its spirit, you see, you see?” Then you turned your focus on rendering the light and shadows on Rufus’s face. His face was different too, but the light was the same, and that was enough. You could work with that.
The light was good. Good, morning light streaming in through the Great Hall windows and the stained glass. The morning light didn’t have a soul any more than those two monsters did, but it sounded good, didn’t it?
Your companion lifted a shoulder in agreement.
You used to believe in things like souls and hope, but now you weren’t so sure. You’d painted too many abstracts, too many meaningless shapes, and blobs of color, and trivial nothings over the years to avoid the real truth—the real soul of this country. Its soul was something hungry and red and barely worthy of the word. It was something you saw in your dreams. And it was something too terrible to paint.
Now soul, that thing you pretended to paint, was just what the wealthy saw in dabs of color and paint. The trick of a brush. It was just something you babbled about when you painted so that people would take your smears and splashes of color seriously. There was no soul, not while the devil herself sat on her throne.
Loraine stirred, her eyes went dark, and you turned your attention back to your canvas. Did ignoring the truth, the real soul, make you a bad artist?
You wondered. Maybe it did, but it had kept you alive all these years.
Yet shame, your constant and most faithful companion, looked up at you with her too-large eyes and her too-wide mouth. She was such a little thing. Why did little things always scare you the most?
“Yes,” Loraine said. “Perseus, whoever he was, has been Burned.”
“Pity we lost track of the Unseen Prophet.”
“Doesn’t matter. He had outlived his usefulness. The experiments yielded nothing. He yielded nothing.”
“But he was the Unseen Prophet, and that is worth something. I will keep searching for him.”
“No. Figure out who Perseus was, then find the Fox,” Loraine said, and she shifted in her seat to look at Rufus.
“Ah, ah!” You jabbed your brush so hard at Loraine that it flew out of your hand. “How many times do I have to say—no moving! The soul! The soul!”
You mumbled under your breath as you found another brush and continued. Loraine only laughed at you, the mad painter. Her laughter filled the stone chamber like ripples on a pond.
You knew why they had asked you to paint this portrait. You were old, yes. Gray, very. A cackling, old woman who didn’t make much sense half the time and babbled about soul the rest of the time, certainly. Best painter in the country? Definitely not.
When it was time for another portrait, they had asked you. How could you say no to that? But they didn’t ask you because you were the second best, they had asked you to paint the royal portrait for other far more important reasons.
“She is funnier than Leo, isn’t she?” Loraine asked and repositioned herself. You stuck your lip out at her.
“I will focus my energies on discovering Perseus and finding the Fox then,” Rufus said. “But why? Perseus is Burned, and the Fox is… useless.”
Loraine rolled her neck, stretching out the muscles. “Not useless,” she said. “Don’t you want to know what happened to him? Besides—”
But Loraine spasmed, doubled over, shrieked. You dropped your brush and collapsed, terrified, and cowered behind your trunk and your paints.
“Loraine? Etta?” Rufus asked, his hands on her shoulders.
She trembled. “Who? Who are you?”
“Etta, it’s me. It’s Rufus.”
“No, not, you, Victor. I know you—you,” she pointed to you, her eyes wide and black.
“She’s no one. Just the portrait painter,” Rufus said, kneeling in front of her, so he blocked her view of you.
“No, help me. You have to help me. My name is, Zulu,” she said, pushing Rufus out of the way and staggering towards you, hands outstretched.
As you scurried backward, you kicked your paints and sent splashes of color across the floor, and your knee screamed with pain.
“Help me, please. Help me and Victor and the rest, we’ve been—” But she stopped. Her eyes cleared of their terror, and she stilled. “Oh,” she said, sounding like herself again. Then she returned to her throne and sat.
Rufus gave you a meaningful glance and then resumed his pose as well as if nothing had even happened.
You knew why they had asked you to paint this portrait. They hadn’t asked you to paint because you were second best, they had asked you because you could be trusted. You were discrete. You knew how to keep your mouth shut. You had been asked to paint for just this moment.
So you stood, brushed the dust from your knobby and throbbing knees, and walked through the paint smeared red and black and white on the stones. And you continued as if nothing at all had happened. But you know what you saw. After so many years of trying to avoid it, ignoring it, running from it, you knew it when you saw it: a soul.
“It’s getting worse,” Rufus said, and you barely heard him over the thrum of blood in your ears.
“That’s why we need to find the Fox.”
“But the doctors are working hard. They’ll find a cure.”
“No. They won’t. They don’t have the resources. We can’t give them what they need to find a cure. But Perseus will lead us to the Fox, and the Fox has a cure.”
“How can you be sure?”
“You heard Juliette. The Fox will return.”
Rufus was quiet. The silence stretched. “But Perseus is gone. Surely that means Juliette’s vision is void?”
“No. Not yet. We might have Burned Perseus, but he can still be of use, whoever he is. Besides, it’s the Fox that scares me more than Perseus.”
“Algol is falling. Perseus is coming. Cetus will die. The Fox heralds our end.”
“Not if I can help it,” Loraine said with a scowl. “And when the Fox does come, we will have Perseus to bargain with.”
“You think he’d give himself up for Perseus?”
Loraine laughed. “Of course. He’s always been weak. And when we have him, the Fox will finish his work, and then we will be complete. And then it will be over.”
Over was a very serious word. Over meant the end.
“Ah! No moving. The soul….” you said.
Shame nudged you. You looked down at her, and she smiled up at you. And you pondered. But maybe you could be rid of her yet. Maybe it was finally time Maybe if you painted this portrait with one more soul…